|Rays of (False?) Hope||10.19.08 at 3:54 am ET|
If the Red Sox and Rays had simply alternated wins in the first six games of the series, the excitement would have been untrammeled. A Tampa Bay team that has leapfrogged its anticipated developmental path would have been lauded for simply getting to a winner-take-all situation for the right to advance to the World Series.
But, of course, that is not what has happened. The Rays, after losing Game 1, flattened the Sox pitching staff over the better part of the next four games, winning games two through four and then taking a 7-0 lead into the seventh inning of Game 5. But then, the Rays gave up a furious onslaught of eight runs in the final three innings to absorb an 8-7 loss.
Their 4-2 loss to the Sox in last night’s Game 6, naturally, was framed as the continuation of the Game 5 bullpen meltdown. Many of the Rays suggested that the historic defeat–the largest postseason lead lost since 1929–had been pushed out of mind by the start of last night’s game. But not everyone could maintain that stance.
“Awe? Shock? Yeah, of course. Rightfully so, I think,” said Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd. “We thought we would be popping bottles a couple days ago. We had the luxury of being up 3-1
“We know what happened. We were on the damn field,” Floyd continued. “You never put it out of your mind. You never completely get over what happened the other night. Hell, we’re all human. I think the most important thing is you don’t want to watch it over and over and over and read the same thing.”
Yet that is precisely what the Rays will find it nearly impossible to avoid. Whether or not the team has moved on, all of its members face questions about where the American League Championship Series went off the rails.
One inquisitor after Game 6 asked Joe Maddon how it felt to be on the verge of an historic collapse. The Rays manager was unenthused about the line of questioning.
“That was a tremendous hyperbole right there. That happened a couple of days ago. That has nothing to do with (Game 7),” said Rays manager Joe Maddon. “It’s all about how we react to the moment, and it’s a seventh game. It’s a great learning experience. For us to win that game would be something special for us, also.
“So it’s not about looking into the past. It’s about looking into the future right now. We’ve got to get ready to play that game (Sunday). We’ve got Garza ready to pitch and we’re going to go out and play our game, and that’s basically how I’m going to look at it. It has nothing to do with what happened over the last couple days.”
Interestingly, the Rays talked as a group about the learning experience and opportunity represented by a Game 7, and the lessons offered by the Red Sox about the tenacity of a champion. There seemed an implicit concession that prior suggestions in the series–that talent and execution would matter more than experience–required some adjustment.
“We talked about it a lot of times. Them being the champions, you have to take that away from them,” said Floyd. “We have to take it. They’re not just going to give it away. They know how to win, they know how to come back, they stay very poised in tight situations…
“If we were facing a team that hadn’t come back from situations they had come back from, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion. We’d probably be at home chilling after having practice (while waiting for the World Series) today. (The Sox) just know how to handle the situation totally different. (Tampa Bay) is a team that’s learning.”
And now, that lesson reaches an unprecedented moment of crisis for a franchise is in its first postseason, following its first winning season. The Rays face the difficult task of trying to leave behind the baggage of coming so close to the World Series only to see their club suffer a massive reversal.
The 2008 Sox are the eighth team to rally from a 3-to-1 deficit in a League Championship Series to tie a best-of-seven matchup. Of the previous seven, all but one have made it to the World Series. The Sox have done it three times: in 1986, 2004 and 2007.
Tampa Bay now hopes to avoid becoming the next skid mark. Despite the disappointment that they have not brought already claimed a pennant, the Rays recognize that they do have a unique challenge and opportunity on Sunday.
“Don’t get me wrong—we wish we hadn’t gotten to this point. We wish we weren’t here. But we are. It’s Game 7, man. When we played in our backyards, that’s exactly what we used to say. First phrase: Game 7,” said Rays first baseman Carlos Pena. “To be part of it will be awesome.”
“Heroes are made in Game 7, man. You see it on ESPN Classic all the time,” added Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. “I’m sure there will be a hero tomorrow. Hopefully it will be one on our team.”
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